As the winter months begin to fade into spring, it means that the start of high school spring sports is on the horizon. The boys high school tennis season here on Long Island carries with it a number of intriguing headlines in addition to a deep crop of talent, which should make for an action-packed spring in the tennis community.
Last season, Cold Spring Harbor won yet another Nassau County Championship, defeating Syosset 4-3 for the second consecutive season in the Nassau County title match. In Suffolk, Half Hollow Hills East continued its dominance, beating cross-town rival Half Hollow Hills West 4.5-2.5 for its fifth consecutive title.
Unfortunately, a difference in county rules prevented us from seeing a rematch of Cold Spring Harbor and Hills East, who battled it out for the Long Island Championship the year before.
Both of those schools will be looking to defend their respective county titles as we head into the 2015 season. That task will not be easy as there is plenty of talent all across the island, which should make for an exciting spring of high school tennis.
Sophomore Solomon Ready to Lead Plainview
The Plainview JFK Hawks went just 4-8 last season in a tough Conference 1A, but should be an improved squad in 2015 that could disrupt the conference status quo.
If it is going to become a contender in Conference IA, it will have to lean on its first singles player Yuval Solomon. The sophomore was an all-State player a year ago and is entering his fourth-season playing at the varsity level.
When I started my brother was a senior so that helped a lot,” said Solomon. “He showed me how to stay calm and be confident in my game, and to just have fun when you’re playing.”
Solomon’s older brother, Ofir, is currently the captain at Fairfield University.
Yuval will be the captain of Plainview JFK this season.
Despite only being a sophomore, Solomon can be considered a veteran. He finished sixth in the state in doubles as an eighth grader, and lost a tight opening round match in the state tournament a year ago.
“It was a tough first round matchup. It was a good experience because I saw I could play with him,” said Solomon. “I lost in a third-set heartbreaker. And coming into this year I feel like I just have to play my game and think about how I lost that match and the things I did wrong. Just focus on going point by point and winning it.”
Solomon says the experience of battling in the state tournament has made him a better player because it allowed him to zero in on the things he wanted to improve on in the offseason.
He has been playing a bunch of indoor tennis this winter and competing in tournaments just about every weekend.
“I’m feeling pretty good. I’m confident,” Solomon said as we get closer to the start of the season. “I like the way I’m playing right now and I’m trying to get better every day.”
He said the main thing he wanted to work on over the winter months was his forehand and hitting his spots more accurately on his serve to set up the rest of the point.
“I definitely wanted to work on my forehand and my aggression,” said Solomon. “I also have been working on hitting my shots on serve so I can have an easier approach shot and win points that way.”
Solomon leads an improved Plainview team into Conference IA action this season, and is confident in his team’s ability to make a run at a conference championship.
“Knowing the kids who are coming in (from junior varsity), I’m feeling pretty good,” said Solomon. “The team is going to be better than last year. At all the singles positions, I think we have a good lineup, first and second doubles we are pretty solid. We just need to get that fourth match won and keep going. I feel like we can get those.”
Nassau County teams to watch
►Cold Spring Harbor
The defending Nassau County Champions will look to continue its dominance over the rest of the county, but will have to do so with some new faces. Conor Mullins & J.P. Paris, who captured the Nassau Individual Doubles Championship last season, have since graduated, which leaves big shoes to fill in doubles.
Mullins’ younger brother, Sean, will be in charge of leading the Seahawks this season. The junior was integral last season at second singles and will take on a bigger role this year to replace some key seniors. Cold Spring Harbor is seeking its eighth consecutive Nassau County title.
For two straight years, the Braves have come up one match short of being crowned Nassau County Champions. Despite losing six seniors from last year’s squad, Syosset should still be in the running for a team county title as we head closer to the end of the season.
Two of Syosset’s best players from a year ago will be returning, senior Dylan Granat and junior Daniel Shlelmovich. Granat, along with partner Henry Tell, went all the way to the quarterfinals of last year’s state tournament, before losing to the eventual champions. Shlelmovich has been an All-County Singles player since his freshman campaign, and will look to break into the state tournament this season. The two will be tasked with leading a young, but talented, Syosset team.
The South Side Cyclones enter this season with a ton of confidence coming off the school’s first Nassau County Conference II title. It will not have an opportunity to defend that Conference II title, however, as the Cyclones will be playing in Conference IA this season.
The challenge of playing the county’s best teams is something that South Side will relish this year, led by the first and second singles duo of senior David Reinharz and junior Christian Ardito, both of whom are experienced and tournament tested.
The Cyclones also return seven of its eight doubles starters, including the team’s top duo, juniors Ryan Chelius and Nolan Tiss.
Plainview enters 2015 with just three seniors on the roster, but has a deep cast of talented underclassmen that will make them a threat in Conference IA. The Hawks are led by sophomore captain Yuval Solomon, a fourth-year varsity starter who has competed at this level since he was a 12-year-old, and is one of the best players on Long Island.
In addition to Solomon, Plainview is expecting big years out of junior Evan Lander and sophomore Alex Fried. Both players will be at the top of the Hawk’s singles card this spring and despite being young, have experience competing at this level.
While last year was a bit of a struggle for Plainview, the young, talented cast makes them a threat in a deep Conference IA.
The Manhasset Indians are a team that could fly under a lot of people’s radar this season. It graduated just two seniors and brought back the majority of its roster from a year ago.
Senior Jesse Levitin is one of the top players in the county and will be the key to Manhasset’s success this season. The first singles player is currently 17th in the USTA Boys 18 Eastern Sectional rankings and is a tough out for any opponent.
In addition to Levitin, senior Matthew Holweger brings his experience to Manhasset’s singles card. The Indians junior varsity team was very good last season and a lot of that talent will jump to the varsity level this season, giving Manhasset a deep roster that is ready to make some noise in Conference IB.
Nassau County key dates
►Individual Singles and Doubles Tournament: Saturday-Sunday, May 9-10 (rain dates: May 16-20)
►Team Conference Playoffs: Begin Monday, May 11 (semifinals and finals to be announced)
►New York State Singles and Doubles Championships: Thursday-Saturday, May 28-30 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center
Suffolk County Preview
Conference Champion Gruppuso Ready for Senior Season
Photo credit: Steven Ryan
Stephen Gruppuso enjoyed a fantastic season for Bayport-Blue Point a year ago, winning the Suffolk County Division III Individual Singles crown and garnering all-State honors.
The junior went to the state tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and won his first-round match, reaching the round of 16 before losing to the fifth-seed.
“Just reaching states last year was amazing, and winning my first-round made the experience that much better,” said Gruppuso. “I enjoyed the competitive atmosphere and it is my goal to make it states again this year. I am excited to jump into the season and show everyone that I will be a force to reckon with at states.”
What made the season even more special for Gruppuso was that he had to deal with injuries in the months leading up to the start of it. He missed three months prior to the beginning of the season with an injury which made the success that much better.
Now a senior, Gruppuso is fully healthy heading into his final high school season, and has been working on some specific things to enhance his game this spring.
“This offseason, my coaches Simon Childs and Alex Weinum have been helping me establish a better transitional game; getting me to the net as fast as possible,” said Gruppuso. “I am also making a big push to improve my fitness. Everything that I have been working on this offseason will help me go from being a junior tennis player to a college competitor.”
Gruppuso didn’t start playing the sport until he was 11 but has had some of the best tennis training since he began. He trained at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida early on and attributes a lot of his development to the facility.
“Both Bollettieri and McEnroe (John McEnroe Tennis Academy) have contributed greatly to my success as a junior tennis player and have fostered my love for tennis,” said Gruppuso. “Being surrounded by world class coaches and players is inspiring. I didn’t start playing tennis until I was 11, so Bollettieri was able to help me catch up to my competitors who had been playing for far longer.”
He currently trains at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy where he has fine-tuned his game this winter under Coach Childs. Beyond tennis, Gruppuso also took a small hiatus from the sport during the fall to play goalie for the Bayport-Blue Point Phantoms soccer team.
Immediately following the end of that season, though, it was right back to five days a week tennis training and playing in USTA tournaments.
“My tournament play has been successful and I am feeling more confident than ever,” said Gruppuso.
The senior heads into the season with an improved, confident game that he hopes will help him repeat as county champion and get him back to the state tournament.
“There is going to be a little more pressure on me this year, but I know my hard offseason training will help me lock down the title again,” added Gruppuso, who will be playing his college tennis next fall for the Yeoman at Oberlin College in Ohio. “I am a more refined and fluid player now and I can’t wait to use the skills my coach helped me develop against my competitors this season.”
Gruppuso will lead a Bayport-Blue Point squad that finished in second place of League V last year. While he says his serve and net play are his biggest strengths, he didn’t want to fill in any future opponents in on his weaknesses.
“I don’t think I will reveal my weaknesses,” he said. “But let’s just say I am working hard to fix them.”
Suffolk County teams to watch
►Half Hollow Hills East
Half Hollow Hills East has dominated the Suffolk County landscape over the last several years, winning five consecutive county championships and 100 straight matches over Suffolk opponents heading into this season.
This year could be a year that finds the Thunderbirds a bit vulnerable. It lost five starters from a year ago, including all-state singles’ players Zain Ali and Kyle Alper, which leaves some big shoes to fill at the top of the lineup card.
That being said, Hills East is returning a number of varsity starters from last year that will keep it a contender. Seniors Ross Reiffman and Travis Leaf, who have been an all-state doubles tandem for the past two years anchor the lineup.
The Thunderbirds will need to lean on its returning starters this year as the gap between Hills East and the rest of the field will be narrowed.
►Half Hollow Hills West
Half Hollow Hills West comes into this spring with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. The Colts have fallen short to cross town rivals Hills East in the Suffolk County Championship the previous two seasons, but the team is extremely confident heading into the spring.
The Colts bring back the reigning Suffolk County Doubles Champions Dylan and Duane Davis. The twins won two matches on their way to the state quarterfinals a year ago and can be considered one of the best double duos on all of Long Island.
Leading the charge for Hills West is first singles player Aziz Rashidzada. The junior has been the top singles player for the Colts for the last couple of seasons and anchors an experienced bunch of players who have been contributors on two straight county runner-up teams. Hills West has eight seniors on its roster who are battle-tested, and could get the Colts over the hump.
The Commack Cougars have been one of the top teams in all of Suffolk County for the last several years, and brings an experienced group into the 2015 season. Commack, who won the county championship back in 2009, returns nine of its 10 starters from a year ago which should make it a viable threat this spring.
At first singles, the Cougars will lean on junior Andy Zhou. An all-Division player last season, Zhou has been a varsity player since he was in seventh grade, and has improved in each of his four seasons at the top level. Joining him at the top of the singles card is another veteran, senior Nick Fox, who was an all-state player last season. Fox also plays first doubles.
Commack also returns two experienced doubles tandems. Connor Burke & Brandon Kramer were all-Division last year, while Jason Gerber & Conor Wright were all-League.
Sophomore Peter Yu and freshman Sol Yoon both return to solidify the bottom part of the singles card. With all the talent returning to the Commack squad this year, the team that finished third in Suffolk County last season could be a serious threat to win it in 2015.
The North Babylon Bulldogs come into 2015 coming off a bit of a rebuilding season last year. North Babylon finished third in League III, going 10-8 overall before bowing out to Walt Whitman in the county playoffs.
North Babylon showed signs of promise last year, and were led by two young, talented singles players at the top. Now one year older, junior Tyree Grimsley and sophomore Lynus Fortaleza will look to lead the Bulldogs to a league title and a high seed in the county tournament.
Last year, Fortaleza and Grimsley were the top two seeds in the Division II singles tournament, respectively, and wound up meeting each other in the tournament’s final. Grimsley came out on top, but having two North Babylon singles players compete in the final showed that the Bulldogs could be a threat this spring. Each brings a different style of tennis to the court, and will lead a deep and experienced North Babylon bunch into Division 2 League III action.
The Bayport-Blue Point Phantoms team has slowly improved in each of the last few seasons and is ready to make some serious noise this year. The Phantoms reached the county quarterfinals as the eighth seed in 2014, before falling to eventual champion Hills East, and return a number of key players from that team that should make it the favorite in League V.
Stephen Gruppuso is the anchor of the Phantoms team. The senior was an all-State player in his junior campaign last year, even winning his first-round match at the state tournament. Gruppuso was the Division 3 singles champion last season and could lead Bayport-Blue Point to big things in 2015.
The Phantoms have a deep roster that will make it tough for any team to win four of seven matches against. Joining Gruppuso as seniors are Sean Gray, Timmy Darby and Kyle McCrosson. Gray, an all-League selection, played with Darby in doubles and the pair will only improve on their success last year with another year under their belt.
Suffolk County key dates
►Division Individual Tournaments: Friday-Monday, May 8-11 (Division 1 at Smithtown East; Division II at East Islip; Division III at Patchogue-Medford; and Division IV at William Floyd)
►Sectional Individual Tournament: Saturday, May 16 and Monday, May 18 at William Floyd
►New York State Singles and Doubles Championships: Thursday-Saturday, May 28-30 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center